By Phillip Walter Wellman – Activists and opposition supporters in Bahrain have criticized a decision by the United States to resume arms sales to the troubled Gulf kingdom, saying it could encourage further human rights violations.
The U.S. State Department announced last week that the United States would begin selling some military supplies to Bahrain to help the country “maintain its external defense capabilities.”
Washington halted all sales last year after Bahraini authorities used deadly force to suppress the country’s pro-democracy uprising. U.S. officials have not specified what equipment will be available under the new policy. However, they say crowd control supplies will not be included.
The announcement comes amid fears that human rights violations in Bahrain could be increasing. Anti-government supporters clash with security forces on a nightly basis. A number of rights activists and opposition leaders have been arrested and remain in prison.
Matar Matar, a spokesperson for the main opposition party al-Wefaq, says most Bahrainis disapprove of the U.S. plan to resume selling weapons to their country.
“Bahrainis are disappointed by this decision,” said Matar. “The situation is moving from bad to worse. This arms deal the government will interpret as a green light to continue the arrests.”
According to Brian Dooley of Human Rights First, selling military supplies to Bahrain under the current circumstances would be a “disaster” for U.S. credibility in the Middle East.
“By allowing the arms sale to go through, either the U.S. thinks that real reform has happened or it’s decided that it doesn’t really matter anyway, that it’s going to sell them the weapons whether or not they reform,” said Dooley. “Either way, it’s not producing and won’t produce real human rights reform.”
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland says while Bahrain has taken “some important steps” towards reform, “much work remains to be done.”
However, she also says maintaining Bahrain’s military capabilities is a “critical component” of America’s commitment to Gulf security.
The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in the country and is seen as vital to counter Iranian influence in the oil-rich region.
The resumption of arms sales follows a recent visit to Washington by Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman Hamid Al Khalifa, who met Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The United States has been criticized for its mild response to Bahrain’s crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators over the past year, while showing strong support for opposition movements in other Middle Eastern nations.